Tour Confidential: Is the Saudi golf league over before it even started?

Dustin Johnson

Dustin Johnson hits a tee shot earlier this month at the Saudi International.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we break down what’s next for the proposed Saudi Golf League, Phil Mickelson’s comments, the Genesis Invitational and more.   

1. While golf was played at an iconic course with a star-studded field this week, it was what happened away from the play at the Genesis Invitational that made the biggest waves. Player after player were asked their thoughts on a guaranteed-paycheck, upstart golf league funded by Saudi Arabian cash, then came a story from the Fire Pit Collective’s Alan Shipnuck, who wrote of a phone conversation that he had had with Phil Mickelson in which the six-time major champ described himself as a key architect in the league — and added that he hoped the plan would generate leverage in future negotiations with the PGA Tour. The news wasn’t over. On Sunday, both Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, long rumored to be part of the Saudi league, pledged their loyalty to the Tour. Whew. Lots to unpack here, but we’ll start with this: With the announcements of DeChambeau and DJ, and what seems to be a strong majority of players sticking with the PGA Tour, is the Saudi league over before it even got started?

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Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): It’s not over, but this week was a haymaker. For how long this league had been discussed and planned and with everything else that went into it behind the scenes, it’s going to take a lot more for it to be truly buried. But, yeah, this was not a good week for the Super Golf League. And years from now, if it’s still not a thing, this week, and perhaps the domino effect caused by Phil Mickelson, will be the reason why. One thing that was evident this week — the players, whether premeditated or not, seemed to be more vocal in their criticism and more adamant in their allegiance to the PGA Tour. There was a shift.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): I think it’s too early to pronounce it dead. There’s too much money and ambition behind it. But to live up to what its promoters have promised, any rival league was always going to need a critical mass of big names onboard, and that momentum seems all but gone for now. That doesn’t mean some kind of alternate league won’t still take shape. The general concept has been like a cicada in recent decades, going dormant for long spells and then springing back to life.

Nick Piastowski, senior editor (@nickpia): This week was a blow, no doubt, but it’s not over. I see one of two things happening — either the Asian Tour gets a larger investment, or they pause plans on the league. Or both really. They’ve shown the Asian Tour concept works — the field was strong at the Saudi International, and the PGA Tour, though irritated, let it happen — and I could see more big-purse events. As for the other Tour, that has to be slowed. The Mickelson comment, at the moment, is too much to wash away, pun intended. They’ll regroup, up the money offered and try again. 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Saudi wealth among its ruling class is almost limitless. It’s not dead. But it’s easy to imagine it in some form, for the 40-and-over crowd, from all over the world.

2. Saudi League question two. After everything that Mickelson has said over the Tour over the past two weeks — don’t forget the “obnoxious greed” comment earlier this month — how much will his commentary impact his legacy?

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Berhow: Short term, it will be significant. Long term, less so. People have short memories, but it also depends a lot on what Mickelson does with the next decade or so.

Bamberger: I agree with that completely, Josh. Hold it, what are we talking about again? 

Sens: Mickelson has always been a polarizing figure. In my random polls of fellow golfers over the years, the votes seemed to fall about 60-40, Phil worshippers over Phil detractors.  I suspect if I took another of those surveys tomorrow, the down-on-Phil crowd would win in a landslide. Josh is right about short memories, but the incident will get mentioned in Mickelson’s obit. Not everyone will forget.

Piastowski: Sadly, the comments may be forgotten over time. They shouldn’t be. If you think otherwise, go read that quote again on the Fire Pit Collective website. 

3. Saudi League question three! Or this is more of a PGA Tour question. While no doubt a win for the Tour with the re-commitments of Johnson and DeChambeau, along with a host of others, where does the Tour go from here? Multiple outlets were reporting that there was discussion this week of experimenting with different formats during fall tournaments. Do you see more experimentation like this to appease players?

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Berhow: Yes. Many players, including Phil, have been right in the fact that this has forced the Tour to open its eyes and make more changes to appease the players. We’ve already seen some of that happen with the PIP and Players purse increase, for example, but more still needs to happen. More team events, mix in LPGA stars — 72-hole stroke-play events, 48 weeks a year, is numbing.

Sens: Boy, is it tiring to think about what needs to be done to appease some of the most privileged people on earth. But I get it. It’s the marketplace. In my dream of dreams, we’d go back to the old days when golf took a breather. Scrap the wrap-around season. Give it a rest. Do we really need a bunch of contrived formats and watered-down events to get us through an offseason? Shut it down for a bit, and it will be all the more exciting when it starts back up again. The Groucho Marx rule is a good one here — you can love your cigar and still take it out of your mouth now and then.

Piastowski: Yep. While many of the players came out in support of the Tour, there were still a few grumblings of the status quo. This is the perfect opportunity to strike while the iron’s hot and keep the players happy. Shoot, steal ideas from the Saudi and Premier Golf Leagues. If you rest on this, PGA Tour, we’ll be talking about this again very, very soon. 

Bamberger: It’s not really a question of appeasing the players. The Tour exists FOR the players. The players ultimately want what the golf-watching public wants, because it is the golf-watching public that pays the bills. We do want more team play, more mixed play, more match play, more transparency. The PGA Tour does amazing things in the name of charity, but it is also a big business. It’s hanging on to its not-for-profit status by a hair. It needs more transparency in every way. 

4. On to the golf! Joaquin Niemann played Riviera at a near-record-setting clip on his way to a win at the Genesis, holding off a star-studded field in the process. Your biggest on-course takeaway from the week, as the Tour heads to the Florida swing. 

Bryson DeChambeau hits a shot during the 2019 Hero World Challenge
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Berhow: Collin Morikawa played once during this West Coast swing, and that was his T2 at the Genesis. The guy is going to go on a tear this year. Three or four wins, easy.

Sens: As 2021 wound down, Jon Rahm seemed primed to win every time he teed it up. He’s hardly been a slouch in 2022, but his game has just been just the slightest of margins off. His driver at Torrey. His putter this week. A reminder of the razor’s edge between winning and everything else. I’m with you on Morikawa though, Josh. That was the quietest T2 I think I’ve even seen. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Piastowski: Do Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler do anything but top-10? Toss in Jon Rahm, and that’s about as good a bet as any for your four major winners this year. 

Bamberger: I’d like to see Riviera in the third week in June. Fast and hard, it could be an incredible U.S. Open course.

Piastowski: Good point, Michael. The 2026 U.S. Women’s Open there should be fantastic. 

5. Twice at the Genesis, Tiger Woods, the tournament host, provided updates on his recovery, nearly one year since his car crash. On Saturday, on CBS, he notably said: “I don’t want to come out here and just play. That’s how I am. I need to feel that I’m confident that I can beat these guys, and I got to do the legwork at home. It’s on me.” Was there anything that Woods said, or anything that you saw, that suggested he will play sometime this year?

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Berhow: A few reports on site said he was walking pretty well, which is a good sign, but I don’t think Tiger comes back until he’s 100 percent confident he won’t have any hiccups walking 72 holes. Like he said, he won’t rush it. That said, I think he will definitely play this year. He likes to keep his decisions close to his chest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Tiger, well, surprises us. It wasn’t that long ago we had a few years of will he/won’t he, last-minute Masters decisions. I expect that this year, and even though it’s a long shot, you never know. I’ve learned to stop doubting him.

Sens: I’ve also learned to stop predicting anything. That said, I’ve got my calendar circled for the British Open at St. Andrews. A fan can hope.

Bamberger: That’s my feeling, too — and only if the weather forecast is fair.

Piastowski: I hate to say it, but the quote in the question above told me a lot. He’s not coming back to tie for 55th somewhere. It’s going to be a while before we see him. Let’s go with next year’s Masters. And this year’s PNC, of course. 

6. Golf Channel reported that Harry Higgs and Joel Dahmen might be fined by the Tour for their shirt-lifting episode at last week’s WM Phoenix Open. Notably, the Tour itself promoted the scene on its social media channels. Do you agree with the fine? Or should players be allowed to loosen up a bit?

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Berhow: Rules are rules — regardless if they are good — so if there’s something about personal conduct in the book that states what they did is grounds for a fine (I’m sure there is), then you can’t argue with it. But to fine them AFTER using this all over their social media channels? That’s a brutal, brutal look. In my opinion, no one knows how to act during Phoenix week, to be honest. Fans think they have to be crazier than usual, players think they have to be more engaging than usual, and, in turn, the PGA Tour thinks it needs to turn its hat backward and lighten up as well. That’s OK, but if promoting WM Phoenix Open craziness is their plan, they can’t have it both ways and dish out fines.

Sens: Ridiculous fines. The Tour goes out of its way to promote a wild and crazy party atmosphere and then pretends to clutch its pearls when a pudgy bares his chest? If they have to pay anything, make it be to a counseling service for those of us who might need help un-seeing that sight.

Piastowski: Please don’t go the way of no end zone celebrations. The Tour doesn’t want stifling the fun to be one of the reasons players are looking at alternative leagues. If it becomes a regular thing and winners start ripping off shirts like Hulk Hogan, then put the hammer down. But this was an in-the-moment, fun move. No fine!  

Bamberger: The whole point of the Phoenix stop is that golf etiquette as we know it is passe. Shirts-on-courses are, too. Let it go. Joel Dahmen deserves all the attention he can get.

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